Perhaps this article should have been entitled Robo-Bo – – ocks as it has been inspired by a recent spate of articles and TV programs promising a bright fantasy future for mankind from the application of intelligent, robot technology. According to these so-called experts, technology is going to rescue us from the compound mess capitalism has got humanity and the planet in. Even more bizarrely, during the summer of 2017, viewers to BBC television in the UK were told in news bulletins and several televised documentaries, that in the near future robots could not only do the routine repetitive work for us, but could also be our ‘companions’ when we are lonely and ‘carers’, when we are old and infirm.
Checking the calendar confirmed it wasn’t April and it became clear these programmes weren’t scifi spoofs, missing episodes of Star Trek, or belated back stories explaining the early development of the ‘replicants’ in the film Blade Runner! No!; these programmes were for real – at least real in the sense that they were actually broadcast; the participants were not actors – at least not in the generally accepted sense of the word. They were a mix of academics and technology professionals. Yet given the economic system we live under it was hard to take these programmes as representing anything but imaginative fantasy. The presenters of this unfolding techno-babble fantasy had visited university departments and high-tech businesses in the USA, Japan, Germany and the UK.
The procession of professors and design technicians, when interviewed in these various international locations, confirmed and embellished this brave new world perspective. Perhaps this enthusiastic promotion and endorsement of a fantasy future by the starry-eyed, participants was inevitable, for a couple of reasons. First, no sceptics were invited to comment at any point. Second, because most, if not all, of these professoral technophiles are getting paid considerable salaries, expenses and pensions, some at tax-payers expense, to indulge themselves in what amounts to no more than their chosen ‘special’ interests. They are getting paid to indulge themselves. ‘Give us even more funding’, you could almost see them thinking as they paraded their latest experimental findings to the equally techno-obsessed and space infatuated interviewers.
Not one of them – at any point – seemed concerned with the plight or opinions of those ordinary working people who keep the world’s economic infrastructure going and who pay their salaries and future pensions, through taxation or the surplus-value they create. Nor did these technocrats appear concerned about the negative effects that advances in technology have already had (and will continue to have) on their less fortunate – only just managing – fellow citizens. It was obviously not in the job specification of any of these eager futurists to think about the circumstances of the thousands who are now unemployed, homeless and/or visiting food – banks. They appeared equally unconcerned about the impact the exotic (and toxic) materials and resources they are using will have on the environment.
Science and technology in class-based societies.
It is my view that science and technological developments cannot be sensibly discussed unless the concrete manifestations, applications and implications of it within the capitalist mode of production are considered. So when we are informed that robots will free mankind from drudgery, from making the all too frequent mistakes humans do and accomplish routine things more efficiently and quicker, such self-serving techno-fantasies need to be passed through the filter of capitalist economic reality. Clearly the BBC and the producers of these programmes did not share this view and so the participants imaginations were allowed to range far and wide without any apparent effort to rein them in.
It is clear that as producers of industrial volumes of commodities, future robots, guided by ‘artificial intelligence’, would always do as they are told, never get tired, never strike or down tools and would have no need for ‘comfort breaks’, wages, holidays or retirement pensions. Indeed, from a one-sided, economically illiterate perspective, robot workers as producers, appear to be even better than the human slaves and peasants of the distant past, let alone more modern workers when organised in any active non-company union. Taken at this eagerly promoted face-value, robotic and automated production methods in many ways seem to be a capitalist dream come true. Except of course, as we shall demonstrate, this techno-babble persective in many ways is exactly that – a dream; or more accurately – a one-dimensional, ill thought out, lalla-land day-dream! Or, from an opposite perspective – a dystopian nightmare.
That is to say nightmares such as those visualised in the sci-fi films ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Robo-Cop’, ‘I Robot’ and Alien – to mention just a few. A more realistic shudder of apprehension, might arise if we consider the further use of automation and so-called artificial intelligence when it gets into the hands of the political and military elites. And under the present system we can be sure it will. Already so-called intelligent bombs and drone warfare tactics have introduced extreme distance in the de-humanised and traumatic practice of killing other human beings. People designated as enemies will remain ‘beyond-the-horizon’ targets, but who in future could be ‘programmed’ into the processing units of the death-delivering hardware and zapped. And if any more innocents get in the way – and they will – too bad! First conclusion: Science and technology can never be neutral in class divided societies.
A considerable part of this recent broadcasted incarnation of 20th century techno-babble nonsense concerned the development of so-called accident free driver-less cars and haulage vehicles. Of course, in theory and in the realm of technology, the driverless element of transport is entirely possible. Commercial aircraft have already achieved a couple of the basic levels of automatic control such as inflight navigation and landing, whilst some automobiles are now able to stop, start, steer and even park. But are cars and fuel guzzling aircraft really the future for humanity and planet earth? Does the world really need more airports, parking spaces, congestion and pollution? And do human beings really need all the constant and frenetic travel back and forth between one destination and another isolated from each other in tin, aluminium or plastic boxes with wings or wheels?
And actually, despite technophile reassurances, the accident free element of travel is still far from being solved. Mechanical and electrical components routinely fail, and unforseen circumstances are always – and always will be – lurking about somewhere. This is because the fallible human element is still operative in the urban and rural environment. In particular it has been retained in the design and manufacturing side of transport even if once eliminated from behind flight controls or a steering wheel. Furthermore, it is well established that accidents increase relative to increases in traffic volume and speed, whoever or whatever is controlling the guidance system. But there are other more compelling reasons (social, economic and environmental) for seriously doubting whether, under the current capitalist mode of production, any such a partially or wholly fantasy vision will get beyond the current expensive prototype stages.
Fatal flaws in techno-driven fantasy land.
To my mind, the only positive aspect of contemporary techno-babble speculation concerning the future use of artificial-intelligence, robotic automation and space colonisation is to use it to illustrate a fatal contradiction at the heart of the capitalist mode of production. For a start, we apparently need to remind the techno-futurists among us that for the first time in the history of humanity, advances in production techniques have created a global system which threatens our species and the earths ecology in two important ways. First: The 19th and 20th century advances in technology have already led to a dual degradation of human communities – through manufactured poverty for some and the anihilation of others through competitive wars over resources and markets.
Second, the existing level and intensity of technological production along with excessive consumption is already leading to the whole-sale destruction of the very eco-systems upon which all life – including our own – depends. In the final analysis, economic activity dominates all other areas of life and it is the economics of capitalism, not science which determines what can and cannot be done whilst this system continues. The more capital is accumulated, the more it’s owners and controller’s invest this in increased production and speculation and this progressively undermines the systems economic, financial, ecological and social foundations. Under the control and direction of capital the more the methods of production are increased in volume and intensity, the less viable the whole system becomes. Or as Marx long ago described it;
“..the more productiveness develops, the more it finds itself at variance with the narrow basis on which the conditions of consumption rest. (Marx. Capital Volume 3 page 240)
We shall consider this low and non-waged ‘narrow basis’ of consumption again later. But before that, the following facts should be born in mind. It is obvious that the general accumulation of capital – derived fundamentally from manufacturing and commodity production – also leads to financial speculation, creates fictitious capital and stimulates multifarious asset bubbles. All three of which lead to the kind of economic and social consequences which occured before, during and after the 2008 financial crash. Since very little has been done to curb such speculation and dubious asset-bubbles, sooner or later another financial crash will occur.
At the same time, investment in production, leads to greater concentrations of productive capacity and increased output, ruining small businesses, causing unemployment, creating low-waged economies and amassing surpluses of products requiring sales disposal. Marx’s suggestion that, other things remaining equal, the capitalist mode of production would eventually reach a stage where it would have the potential to undermine it’s own basic structures and eventually create impassable barriers, is proving correct. It is worth reiterating the reasons how and why.
Capitalist barriers to further automated production.
It should be obvious – to those who sufficiently think about it – that under the capitalist mode of production, the very non-human attributes of robotic production are what make this techno-bubble futuristic day-dream impossible. True, artificially-intelligent production robots would not tire, wouldn’t need holidays, toilet breaks or pensions etc., but as elements of ‘fixed’ capital neither do they purchase or consume the products they make. Under the present capital dominated economic system, this problem would be unsolvable.
In all human socio-economic affairs, production pre-supposes (1) initial productive-consumption (raw materials being made into buildings, tools and skills etc) and (2) final consumption (manufactured products being sold and used up). A continuous cycle of production followed by consumption and consumption requiring further production, has always been the case as has the development of mechanical aids. However, the birth of capitalism inserted a contradiction into this age-old socio-economic cycle of collective humanity. The much maligned Marx again;
“…a rift must continually ensue between the limited dimensions of consumption under capitalism and a production which forever tends to exceed this iminant barrier.” (Marx. Cap. Vol 3. P 251)
Here we encounter the limited (or narrow) dimensions of consumption again. The contradiction arises because under the domination of capital, total consumption is dependent not on general desire or need for products and services, but primarily upon purchases of them. Such purchases in turn depend upon the available level of income (from wages, salaries, profits and interest). The wages and salaries capitalists pay to human workers are, of course, necessary in order that they can feed, house and cloth themselves, but these payments do more than that. Workers, as we know, feed, house and clothe themselves by purchasing these necessities from capitalist suppliers; ie their own capitalists and/or other capitalists. And incidentally, these wages, when spent, are also the monetary source of the financial return on capital, the source of next weeks or months wages and the monetary surplus-value (profits) appropriated by the capitalist class.
Even if robotic production could be somehow arranged so as to theoretically produce sufficient surplus-value (value above and beyond the value contained within its costs and replacement costs) this value and surplus-value would have to be realised by actual sales. That is simply how the capitalist economic system works. Without waged and salaried workers buying stuff and consuming it, the whole system cannot function on a capitalist basis! And this insight is nothing new! Adam Smith, David Ricardo and many other economists explained this fact centuries ago. But I prefer the improvement made to that analysis and insight by Karl Marx.
“…if capital does not return from circulation, then this circulation between worker and capital could not begin anew; hence it is itself conditional upon capital passing through the various moments of its metamorphosis outside the production process.” (Marx. Grundrisse.)
In other words, the capitalist mode of production requires the circulation of value-laden commodities by a means of exchange based upon money (actual or virtual) to mediate the circulation and consumption of these products. Take away the wages element by progressively employing robots and you take away (or progressively reduce) purchases; take away or reduce purchases and you take away or reduce returns on capital, profits and, of course, final consumption; take away or reduce consumption and either products pile up unsold and/or production has to be reduced or terminated. Under the capitalist mode of production, the problem created by still further advanced fixed-capital techno-solutions would be a higher degree of what is already termed ‘relative over-production’.
That is to say more production is (and would be) routinely created relative to the available purchasers having an adequate means to purchase it. Even without any technological interventions, the propensity for relative over-production is already built into the capitalist mode of production. The requirement for gaining profit by the owners of capital means that working people are required to produce more value than the value encapsulated in their wages and salaries; the difference being the above-noted surplus-value which is the source of monetised profit. This in turn means the working classes cannot ever buy all they produce – hence the historic and contemporary imperative for capitalist producers to export by fair means or foul – ie subsidies, armed colonial conquest and imperialist style control of markets and sources of raw materials!
And already 20th century levels of technology and automation have ensured that more and more areas of production are operating with fewer and fewer paid employees. Hence we already have an increased historical rate of productivity and an increasingly narrow or limited basis for sales. But the problem doesn’t end there. Fewer paid employees also mean lower tax revenue for capitalist based social systems. Since the late 20th century and now in the 21st century, this reduced tax base has already caused a problem of funding public services, and the other organs of the capitalist state. This shortfall has required a pattern of ‘austerity’ and unsustainable loans. This is another important indicator that the capitalist system is again bumping up against its own insurmountable economic barriers and needs changing. Second conclusion: Utilising even more forms of artificial intelligence and robots, under capitalism would obviously only make matters worse.
The fact that some workers would need to be transferred to the manufacture of robots and their systems would not balance the loss of workers elsewhere for it would not and could not be (despite it perhaps being piously hoped for) a one for one replacement. True, the workers creating robots and robotic systems would need to be highly skilled and therefore highly paid but their extra salaries would still be insufficient to mop up the increased production the robots and automated systems they design would be ultimately capable of creating. The few high status robot-designing and producing skilled workers and the fewer lower status semi-skilled workers maintaining and cleaning the automated production lines elsewhere in industry would consequently mean an acceleration of the already unfolding two-fold economic system failure. Relative over-production and shrinking tax incomes.
At one level commodity and service production would then have to be reduced (the robots switched off or mothballed) to match the restricted ability to pay for them. At another level the staff employed in the state institutions would have to be vastly reduced to match the reducing tax base. As a result of the existing problem of relative-overproduction, (this is often classed one-sidedly as under-consumption) the idea of the state giving every human being, whether they work or not, enough money to buy essentials has been suggested by some so-called economic and political experts. But obviously this would only exacerbate the existing inequalities among people. The gap between the privileged and underprivileged would grow even wider. A small elite skilled techno-‘middle’ class would be created with even larger numbers of ordinary citizens surviving on state sponsored handouts.
Here is an example of how mad the techno-fetishism is getting. In anticipation of further income level disparities, and building upon the existing inequalities of wealth and income, at least three billionaire led companies (Virgin, Amazon and Tesla) are currently testing rocket-powered flight systems for future business ventures in space tourism. Whilst country after country is falling apart, through skewed economic policies and military interventions, these three wise kings of commerce and industry are hoping and intending to make profits out of selling high-priced seats on a re-useable rocket plane to wealthy punters. It is intended that the super-rich will be taken on a short sub-orbital trips to see the blackness of space, the blue roundness of the earths profile and perhaps catch a glimse of the greed in the eyes of their profit-grasping benefactors. At an estimated one quarter of a million dollars per person per trip, it is a proposed elite indulgence worthy of a modern set of Nero’s.
It gets worse. Already political elites in Luxembourg, New Mexico and elsewhere have contributed tax-payers money to the 600 million dollars spent so far on this ‘other world’ self-indulgent vanity project. This includes 200 million dollars on a currently empty Spaceport in the desert. Yet these same elites constantly tell their citizens that there is not enough money for decent schools, hospitals, pay and pensions. The height of ambition for our futurists, and their sycophantic followers, is not to use their position, wealth and education to help solve the problems of poverty, homelessness, ecological destruction and aggressive wars. Definately not! It is to send rich people on a whistle-stop experience of weightlessness, whilst a glimpsing the curvature of the planet; and make themselves even richer in the process. And all this while the rest of us are expected to wallow around in various stages of state-funded relative or absolute poverty.
On serious consideration, it becomes clear that such imaginative suggestions and self-indulgent fantasies, consistently fail to connect all the economic dots – so to speak. In particularly those pundits imagining a universal non-working wage for all are economically naive or intellectually challenged. Are they really not aware that with up to 60% unemployment in some advanced capitalist countries we are already part way there to paying large numbers of people for not working and this quack remedy isn’t solving the social problem nor the economic one of relative (and absolute) over-production. Surely it is obvious why? Extending that kind of hopefully naive proposal would of necessity increase state expenditure by the addition of these new mass, universal, non-work ‘benefits’, thus adding to the existing problem of funding public services.
And where would the money or monetary value for such extended benefits come from? A printing press or electronic leger allocation? That would be the equivalent of giving production away to the bulk of the population by means of giving them a paper entitlement or an electronic cash-card allocation. And who would decide how much to allocate to the permanently unemployed plebs? The elite? And wouldn’t that be just another exagerated version of what we have now – but on technological robot-driven steroids? Or, alternatively, would it not have to become a more modernised version of a top-down form of state-capitalism/state-socialism, as happened under the direction of the previous Fascist, Stalinist and Maoist political regimes?
Nor, if such a futurist scenario were remotely possible, would such a policy of artificially-inteligent robotic production of commodities and services do anything to curb the excessive utilisation of the planets finite resources. Not a bit of it. In fact further automated production under the restless profit-driven direction of capital and its representatives would accelerate even faster the existing exhaustion of the planets limited resources. In addition, pollution levels would increase, with the knock-on effects creating even more frequent negative weather patterns and climate change. All of which anticipates the another insurmountable barrier the capitalist mode of production now faces in the 21st century.
The ecological barriers – a finite Earth.
The notion of projecting a future path for humanity based upon an incremental progression of production for productions (and profits) sake which has occurred over the past 100 or so years is a recipe for further ecological and social disaster. Already humanity under the stewardship of the capitalist and pro-capitalist elite, is producing and consuming (albeit disproportionally) more than it needs and far more than the waste materials it creates can be safely contained or neutralised. As noted a new technical revolution involving how commodities and services are produced may be hypothetically possible but in practice this could not occur on the basis of the capitalist mode of production. Nor, if it were possible to go even a little further, should we be encouraging people to do so. The planetary resources are already close to exhaustion. Air, Sea and Land pollution are already at record levels and ecological damage is rapidly increasing the rate of species extinctions, many of which are essential to the ultimate survival of humanity.
But wait! Another set of technophiles, based at universities and space-focussed public and private institutions think they have the robotic answer to capitalism’s almost terminal depletion of the earth’s essential minerals and rare metals – at least in their turbo-charged imagination. They are already discussing the possibility of sending mining robots to Mars and other solar system orbiting bodies to obtain new supplies when those on earth run out! Yes they really are! Working prototypes are already being tested in desert locations, and the British Broadcasting Corporation now has a ‘New Earth’ colonist project on its Web site. This all smacks of sheer self-indulgent ‘Star Trek’ type fantasy lacking only Captain Kirk, a character with pointy ears and Scotty, to tweak a modified transporter room to unscramble their techno-fantasy, pro-capitalist brains.
The absurdity of such thinking is perhaps hard to better outside of science fiction or clinically encountered deranged fantasy but it does reflect the mentality of those who still think capitalism is a rational mode of production and is able and ought to continue to expand. Having polluted and exhausted one place whilst making huge profits, then capitalist logic suggests – even at times dictates – moving on to despoil another. And in imagination, of course, there is always another – this time among the orbiting bodies and beyond! Capitalism has done this with the resources of successive regions of this planet, so the simple pro-capitalist logic is to start the process again – this time on another planet. Once more ‘to boldly go’; having previously ‘gone’ to Africa and the New World; now the galaxy also awaits ‘discovery’ and another round of profit-led exploitation. But of course this time, as we have seen, there are real economic, social and practical barriers to planetary colonisation and any future galactic forms of imperialist mining and marketing.
The Social barriers – dissatisfied people.
Only intellects which are devoid of a social conscience and which lack a grasp of economics could imagine that it would make sense (or be socially acceptable) to spend billions on space missions to send privileged people or robots to collect ore’s currently worth very little per ton and divert these billions away from much needed infrastructure and services within their own communities. Obviously, the value of such ‘other world’ raw materials, once the ‘astronomical’ transportation costs have been factored in, would make production prices so high that such fantasies are economically laughable from the outset.
Yet, as noted above, some techno-fantasists do more than just imagine such ‘off-world’ mining and colonising activities, there are actually so-called ‘deep space industries’ currently being set up to work on the detail of them! This is despite the fact that the human body and its immune system, deteriorates rapidly in zero gravity and outside of its interaction with the physical and ecological environment of planet Earth upon which over millions of years it evolved. Just spending six months on the current earth-orbit space station can shorten lives and incrementally increase susceptibility to illness. But hey; why spoil a techno-babblers dream.
Third conclusion: These proposals, as much as anything, illustrate that having a PHD or a professorship in astro-physics, planetary studies, artificial intelligence electronics or applied robotics etc., does not make someone fit to make decisions effecting the future of humanity. Nor does ruthlessly extracting billions of dollars or pounds out of the current system of exploitation. Tucked away in their little departmental bubbles, or executive suites, like others among their colleagues who imagine ‘big – bangs’, ‘black holes’, ‘space – time warps’ and ‘parallel universes’ as established facts, rather than hypothetical intellectual constructs, they are an expense we tax-payers could well manage without. That is until every human being has a decent home, enough quality food, a safe place to live and the prospect of a worry free retirement.
But of course, these techno-phile individuals and fantasy professionals are not the primary cause of the problems associated with the current capitalist application of science to industry, commerce and finance. They are merely highly-schooled, techno-savvy, loose-cannon symptoms of the present alienated and alienating socio-economic system. The underlying cause is the compulsive search for ever more technical efficiency and ever more productive capacity for industry and commerce. This constant efficiency drive is conducted in order to maximise returns on capital and compete with other capitalist players in the global casino of capitalist enterprise. Although there have been a number of counteracting tendencies within the history of the capitalist mode of production, nevertheless it is hard to fault the following observation;
“A development of productive forces which would diminish the absolute number of labourers would cause a revolution because it would put the bulk of the population, out of the running.” (Marx. Capital Vol 3, page 258)
Although the collapse and transformation of the capitalist mode of production has been incorrectly predicted many times, this does not mean that this collapse will never happen. Uprisings which previously failed to develop into humanist revolutions against the capitalist mode of production, does not mean they will always do so. Already at the economic, social, political and now ecological levels there has been a decade or more of serious global decline for the vast majority of humanity.
The decline and fall of capitalism?
In one sense it doesn’t matter that in the early 21st century, the majority of working and oppressed people do not forsee or even wish to see a revolutionary transition of the present mode of production. Very few citizens of antiquity – at the time – forsaw the decline and fall of previous empires such as the Egyptian, Persian, Grecian or Roman. For thousands of years most people thought the earth was flat. Four or five hundred years ago, very few people anticipated that the Feudal system would be superceded. Yet all these socio-economic systems and some of their associated ideas eventually collapsed from the accumulated effects of internal contradictions.
Fourth conclusion: What really determines such a decline and fall of a mode of production is not what people think now, but what they will be compelled to do by the technological advances promoted by capitalism and the circumstances of its extreme crises during its protracted descent into chaos. It should be clear that sooner or later, even people who have not read Marx, will sufficiently wake up to the fact that the present mode of production based upon the domination of capital, is not only exploitative and unfair, but also irrational and is increasingly destructive of their lives and the very conditions which sustain all planetary life forms.
Well before the imagined artificially intelligent robots become marketed to us as ‘friends’ or ‘end-of-life carers’, or the fantasy space waggons set off from planet Earth to fill their holds with mineral rich extra-terrestial dust and return, ordinary people will be compelled to rise up again and again until they are able to change the mode of production to one which is compatible with sustainable and equitable production – with or without robotic assistance. They will do so not because they want to rise up and risk their lives in such a historic transformation, but because they will have to if they want to adequately survive and pass on a habitable planet to their children and grandchildren.
A study of history confirms that ruling elites have never voluntarily given up controlling a socio-economic system, even when it is obvious it has become self-destructive and a dead end for the majority of the people who suffer from it. The elites use all their accumulated powers, economic, political and military, to cling on to their advantages. The present pro-capitalist establishment elite and their sycophantic supporters are no different in this regard. Uprisings and revolutions are therefore the social mechanisms forced upon those classes who represent the oppressed present and a potentially liberating future when they are faced with a determined and obdurate elite, who represent the past – and are hell-bent on maintaining the system.
The present and future oppressed and exploited majority may suffer uneven set-backs – such as occurred in the past 20th century, vanguard-led, so-called anti-capitalist revolutions (as in Russia, China etc.) – and the more recent Arab Spring and other such failed reformist uprisings – as those experienced in South America. However, the contradictions within the capitalist mode of production noted above will keep on forcing them to confront the system in order to assert or defend their essential economic and social needs. The intensity of this confrontation will vary according to how violently the capitalist political representatives (utilising their state institutions) choose to confront the oppressed as they individually and collectively begin to resist and to transform themselves along with the mode of production.
Resistance has begun, and the future has been partially revealed. Large-scale, non-profit making industries and services (education, health, gas, electricity, water, transport and some areas of commodity production) in many countries, have been proved possible and viable, until greed and hierarchy first distorted and then later privatised them. Even local and national governments, the military, the police and state bureacracies are examples of non-profit forms of organisation, albeit ones also distorted by and tailored to, the requirements of the class which lives from exploitation.
What needs to be done is to remove the distorting effects of economic and social domination by capital, profit and hierarchy and the class structures spawned by these elite ‘needs’ and extend that model universally. Easier said than done – true! However, sooner or later, (hopefully sooner), the inevitable process of protracted class struggle will eventually bring along with it a transformative recognition among wider sections of humanity of the need for a revolutionary-humanist, post-capitalist, ecologically-based mode of production. And nothing galvanises thought to catch up with reality better than existential necessity.
The future socio-economic system we surely need to envision is one which will have human beings cooperating and caring for each other and this planet rather than imagining one in which each advanced (sic) nation continues to ruin the worlds eco-systems, sends space colonists to their early and fruitless deaths, deploys ‘intelligent’ military robots to kill people in other countries, whilst attempting to sell (or provide) those on their own side with a cuddly, cross-dressing robot to nurse them in sickness or in order to prevent them being lonely.
Roy Ratcliffe (October 2017)